Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Die Welle

I do a lesson. I call it my Nazi lesson. It's powerful. And I never feel altogether clean afterwards.

When I teach History I often find that, however enthusiastic the students, they never quite see the immediacy of what we discuss, the never join the dots between what we study and what we live. People who know me well-ish, outside of the classroom, know of my fascination with human nature and my fears about the power and the intoxication of things like Fascism - the power of image over substance. They know that I can talk with big words and get engrossed and lose my sense of time on things like this. Those people know better than to read on.

This is a film review, certainly, but with a difference. I'm not going to talk much about the film. But I am. If you want to know, read further. You may prefer not to.

When I was training as a teacher, some thirteen years ago now, I was given the task of teaching Hitler and the rise of the Nazis to a GCSE class and I wanted to experiment with interpretations and how to teach them. It was the Christmas holidays, I was at home and I was bored. Up on the computer in the spare room, only a dial-up modem, I decided to plan my next lessons. I came up with a sketchy idea about teaching the rise of the Nazis from a multitude of points of view: immersing each lesson in an interpretation. The first hour of the double hour lesson would thus be learning the content for GCSE in a particular interpretation and the second hour would unpack the first and deal with how the interpretation worked and how it could be evaluated. Not in the sense of looking at validity, I resolved only to teach truth and never falsify the facts - this was for their exams! Not in the sense of utility, if I was going to go to the trouble of doing it I would make damn sure it was useful. No, evaluate the interpretation. How was it formed? How did it differ from others? What were the relative strengths and weaknesses of the interpretation.

I also wanted to make sure it was a workable approach. So I sketched out a medium term plan and left the first two weeks, four lessons, as fallow. That is, what would be learned there was bonus material, not on the specification but equally the sort of extra material that, if deployed, would help students make better judgements and use better examples. In short, if my lessons were disastrous then they would lose nothing but time.

Then I tried to work out what the interpretations would be. I had a greatcoat and a Russian hat - I had decided to use these already for some Sixth Form lessons on Russia, just because and why not? So there would be a USSR-style dismissal of Fascism and the links with Big Business - this matched perfectly with a lesson on Nazi economy and the 'Economic Miracle'. It was early 2000s too, Blairite 'third-way' politics were at their peak in the UK. That made perfect sense when discussing Hitler's rise to Chancellor - the lack of a safe political middle-ground or consensus in the political system could be used to explain the growth of extremism. The appeal to 'Mondeo Man' was similar to the belief in the Mittelstand. Thatcherite Conservatism could be used to discuss the use of propaganda, using the idea of the 'enemy within' and the poverty of the economic crash in Germany - linking to the way in which Thatcherite Conservatism aimed to make everyone middle-class, or, at least, everyone that counted to avoid extremist solutions.

Oh, I thought, what about using Nazism itself? Black jacket, printed armband, maybe a flag on an overhead transparency? I could use this to talk about Hitler's early life, one of the 'bonus' lessons. Equally, it was insane compared to the rest of my ideas. It would be a good litmus test for the concept and could be quickly abandoned if it didn't work.

In the back of my mind, though not consciously at the time, I was remembering the tale of the Third Wave in the USA. You may know of this already - a US professor was asked how anyone could have supported the Final Solution and was told that the USA would never become a dictatorship. The class simply didn't believe that ordinary people were capable of such evils: the people of Germany were either stupid, evil or both. So he ran a class like a Fascist and inadvertently saw the rise of a movement, which he demolished by playing them a speech by Hitler at a rally, then the penny dropped and, within a year, no one at the College would admit to being part of the movement but they would all say they heard of it. Just like in Germany after the Second World War was over. Consciously, I was aware of my Uncle that wasn't an Uncle from Hungary. He was dying of Alzheimer's and I have no idea what was true and what was fabrication. But I got the distinct impression he was a former member of the SS in Hungary. A Radio Operator. He was certainly in the Hungarian army in the Second World War and they did fight for the Third Reich in Russia. He would die soon afterwards.

I came up with the idea of teaching Hitler in a Nazi style. I gathered my resources, I planned the lesson. When I taught it, as we neared the end of the first hour, I was walking to the back of the room, intending to end the charade and reveal what we were doing. But some madness possessed me. I got them to stand, which they did. I ordered them to salute, which they did. They all did. The Nazi salute.

The next hour was electric as we unpacked what had just happened. I tried the other concepts but, after that display, they were pointless. Clever, yes, but the power and the emotion as the realisation of what had happened in the lesson hit home was never matched.

In a job interview I re-planned the lesson to take 30 minutes. 10 minutes input, twenty to unpack after the salute. I did not expect to get the job. The lesson worked. I heard clapping, laughter, cheering from other rooms as other candidates finished their lessons. Mine finished in stunned silence. Uncomfortable silence. Furtive glances. I now know that as impact but, on the day, I did not recognise it. I thought I'd failed. But I got the job.

After that, I taught the lesson to Year 9 students. Now 45 minutes long: 15 minutes input, salute, 25 minutes analysis and a homework to unpack the interpretation. Twice a year. Four years. Then a gap. I taught for two years at a school that had some rather big issues. I did not try my lesson. For two reasons:
1. It might not work, the students may decide to destroy it.
2. It might work but I would be unable to stop it.
Then I returned to my first school again. Now I decided to try it with Year 11s and it was the most powerful thing I ever did. Nestled in a study of Nazi Germany, now used to talk about the power of Terror, Support and Propaganda in maintaining Nazi control. I had students cry as we unpacked it. I tried it with Year 13s, 18 year olds, and discovered it just got more powerful, and more unsettling, the older the students. Very few refused to salute. Very few missed the message. No, not all Germans were Nazis. They didn't have to be.

Move school. Year 9s. Four times. No change. And I feel unclean every time I do it. I did it before and after going to Auschwitz, with students who had just been to the Holocaust Memorial Centre. And they responded the same way. For that reason alone I feel that this probably one of the most valuable lessons I teach and one of the hardest and one of the easiest. I can get into role. Too easily.

And so, tonight, I watched Die Welle. Imagine if I had a week to do the input, imagine if the unpacking was not done, imagine if there were vulnerable students who twigged what was happening but did not understand that it was a simulation because it kept going after the point where they would expect a teacher to end it. Imagine if I had the full support of a headteacher. Then you have Die Welle.

But it is a German film. So they take it a stage further, only Germany could do this in a film, only Germany is able and only Germany would be allowed. At the end, because there is no unpacking, the film-makers decided to examine what happens when those vulnerable people have something ripped from them. In reality, in the USA, there was unpacking and the teacher knew what they were doing and what they were creating. In reality, in the USA, the teacher used a trick, a clever trick, to end it. In the film you expected that trick. No, the teacher gets the students to end it by pushing them further - how far would they go? It's a powerful trick, but dangerous. If it were Hollywood the danger would pass, unnoticed, and the film would end there. But it is a German film. The danger does not pass. The film does not end. And then, at the end, the teacher sees something. Then it ends. And what he sees will change depending on what you bring to the film.

Me? I watch Hitler: the Rise of Evil and get excited about taking over governments and how the film shows the NSDAP did it. I recognise the allure and intoxication of the power and the intrigue and where it was taken. Where it led. The only place it can really go. I've taught my lesson for eleven years now, maybe a little longer, and I know how I change it, refine it, with each iteration. I know, it is an hour long now, that I will never risk taking it further than a single lesson. The first time is the longest it will ever be, and I got away with that because I didn't have experience then, that first two hours is about 45 minutes these days.

What do I see at the end of the film? I see a man who realises that he may have created a monster. A man who has the sickening realisation that his trial will be filmed and broadcast and that no matter what he says, no matter what happens to his students who know, he has unleashed Die Welle onto the world and, out there, others will take up the call. And he will be in jail. He won't be able to stop it a second time. That's what I see. And the film does that well, in my mind.

And I feel dirty.

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